In July 2015, Jonathan Udell would wake up with excruciating stomach pain every morning.
His morning routine consisted of writhing in pain before making it to the bathroom where he would try to stretch his stomach. The pain would sometimes cause him to black out.
Sitting in his bathroom, Udell would recover before getting dressed and going to his summer job at a personal injury firm to scrape through the day.
“It was grueling,” he said. “It was definitely taking a toll on my body, and my energy levels were way down. I wasn’t absorbing the nutrients from food correctly because I had so much inflammation.”
Stomach problems were nothing new for Udell. He dealt with occasional flare ups all his life. He visited doctors numerous times, only to be told the pain was most likely in his head.
Udell visited his grandparents in Fountain Hills. After a couple of days, his grandparents forced him to see another gastroenterologist. The doctor diagnosed him with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the person’s dietary tract, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Udell’s condition was severe because of the amount of time his disease went untreated. He talked with doctors about possible surgeries. Doctors thought the inflammation would have caused scar tissue which would lead to more complications in the future.
Even after doctors diagnosed Udell, he had to wait for clearance to get proper medication because of the severe side effects it could cause.
The pain made Udell withdraw from law school that semester.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t do anything to live my life,” he said.
Around that time, Udell noticed that Crohn’s disease qualified for a medical marijuana card in Arizona. Thinking that the drug would at least take his mind off the pain, he applied for a card.
Udell started experimenting with medical marijuana and became impressed with how well it worked for him.
Not only did marijuana relieve the pain, but Udell noticed a reduction in the inflammation in his stomach.
“It provided a great deal of peace of mind and really made my quality of life a lot better than it otherwise would have been until I got on Remicade,” a medication that treats Crohn’s disease, he said.
Udell was eventually cleared for proper medication which cleared the rest of his side effects and allowed him to finish law school.
The experience opened his eyes to how important marijuana can be for people with pain, disease or disability, yet he knew from law school and his own experience how the justice system treated its users.
From Youngstown, Ohio, to Arizona
Udell grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where his passion for helping people and improving lives started at a young age because of his family’s history of activism and law.
After receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy, Udell’s father became a community organizer for anti-war movements during the Vietnam War. His godfather was a civil rights attorney who prosecuted cases against the Columbus police and fire departments for racial- and gender-based discrimination.
“The seeds were kind of planted at a pretty young age, in terms of my interest in law,” he said.
Around the age of nine, Udell and his family moved to Philadelphia after his dad got a new teaching job. Udell graduated high school and enrolled at West Chester University in Pennsylvania where he majored in philosophy and international relations.
During college, Udell’s experience with the law became personal when he was arrested two times for marijuana possession which totaled one-twentieth of a gram of cannabis, he said.
To get his records expunged, he went to Drug Court, a year-long diversionary program in Pennsylvania.
“That experience on Drug Court, I would say really opened my eyes to the absurdity of our marijuana laws,” he said.
Udell found himself in meetings with other nonviolent criminals, but he didn’t think it was fair to be grouped with heroin and cocaine users as “drug abusers,” and labeled as a criminal for something that didn’t harm anyone else.
The experience spurred Udell into activism to make sure marijuana users would not go through the same experience he did.
After expunging his records and graduating from West Chester University, Udell moved to Arizona in 2013 and attended the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
In March 2017, he became a cannabis law attorney for Rose Law Group in Scottsdale, where he works to improve marijuana laws and expunge people’s records across the state.
Racial disparity in marijuana arrests
As marijuana legalization becomes more common across the country, Udell believes expunging marijuana offenses is the least he can do to repair the effects of the war on drugs, which disproportionately affected minorities.
According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in 2018, despite similar usage rates.
While Arizona was slightly better than the national average, Black people were still three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts in the same year, according to the study.
“I think virtually all people have their own stereotypes and their prejudice, and there’s a perception that people of color are more likely to commit crimes,” Udell said.
Udell thinks this perception leads to people of color being pulled over more often and being checked more frequently, which leads to a disproportionate amount of arrests.
“I think it’s shocking and alarming that we’re using a relatively minor drug offense, which is no longer a drug offense in many jurisdictions, to criminalize and imprison large swaths of our minority population,” said Cassia Spohn, a Regents Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.
Spohn said the war on drugs ravaged minority communities for years because of the concentrated enforcement in their neighborhoods.
Drug charges not only create huge obstacles in the future for a person, but also can take away someone’s parent, someone’s spouse or a family’s source of income. The effects stretch beyond one person — rather, it affects generations, according to Spohn.
Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 2010 and recreational marijuana in 2020.
Arrests in Arizona for marijuana possession per year have decreased in recent years, from over 17,000 in 2017 to just over 11,000 in 2019, according to numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
However, arrests made against white and Black people have not declined at the same rate. From 2017 to 2019, possession arrests against white people declined by 38.5% while arrests against Black people only declined by 21.6%, according to data from the FBI.
Udell said the statistics were “mind blowing and disheartening,” especially when the statistics are shown in multiple studies, yet little improvement happens.
‘He understands what they’ve had to endure’
At Rose Law Group, Udell works with businesses to effectively and lawfully serve consumer needs by helping cannabis business owners understand the law. Udell stressed the importance of instructing business owners on how to avoid breaking the law so they don’t bring a negative perception to the community.
“It doesn’t look too good for anyone involved with cannabis at all if businesses are getting in a lot of trouble, and that just fuels negative stereotypes,” he said.
In leadup to the 2020 election, Udell became the communications director for Arizona’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws where he focuses on advocating for better laws, denying abusive laws and expunging lower level marijuana offenses.
On July 12, Arizonans were granted the chance to expunge lower level marijuana convictions. Udell and other volunteers hosted clinics across Arizona helping people file petitions to clean their records.
“As someone who had their slate cleaned themselves, this is very near and dear to my heart,” he said.
Udell’s experience with marijuana convictions helps him form a connection with each client that is obvious to his other volunteers.
“You can just sense he has an immediate personal connection with them,” said Julie Gunnigle, the director of politics for Arizona NORML. “He understands what they’ve had to endure having these collateral consequences of a previous conviction.”
The clinics started in mid-April in preparation for July 12 and have now become weekly events across the state.
Udell and other attorneys meet with clients for about 20 minutes to discuss the expungement process and help draft a petition.
By the end of July, Udell will have volunteered at seven clinics, totaling 40 hours of helping clients through the expungement process, he said.
While attendance varies between clinics, Udell and other attorneys have helped prepare several hundred petitions for expungement, he said.
Clients range from people who grew up in disproportionally impacted communities to wealthier people who had charges from college, Udell said.
Cases also range from people who had a small piece of a joint found under their seat of a car to more serious offenses.
The variety of people that walk through the clinics makes Udell believe that the stereotypes that exist in society are a product of people’s imagination.
“There’s people from all different walks of life that consume cannabis, from musicians, to business leaders to all different kinds of folks,” he said.
The clinics, which have been held in Show Low, Phoenix and Tucson, are aimed to arm people with the proper resources they need to gain a second chance without having to hire an attorney, Udell said.
“Take care of it before it becomes a problem for you because there’s all different kinds of landmines that it can cause,” Udell said.
Udell loves the satisfaction of helping people wipe their slate clean. The look on people’s faces after he helps them keeps him motivated to give people a second chance at life.
“It’s hard to honestly put into words, but the look of gratitude on people’s faces is really palpable, and something that really sticks with me and adds fuel to the fire,” he said.
Even in scenarios where people cannot expunge their records, it is motivation for Udell to keep reforming marijuana laws.
With laws surrounding marijuana consumption changing in the country all the time, Udell is excited to keep learning and figuring out ways to improve the lives of others.
For so long, the perception around marijuana has been negative, but Udell hopes that the evolving views on the usefulness of marijuana will encourage political change so that more people can pursue their version of happiness.
“It drives me crazy that for so long our government has stripped people of their liberty, and in the case of certain people, their lives for trying to pursue their version of happiness just because it was not socially acceptable.”
Reach breaking news reporter Michael Donohue at Michael.Donohue@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @MRDonohue4.
This story is part of the Faces of Arizona series. Have feedback or ideas on who we should cover? Send them to editor Kaila White at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.